WHITE PRIVILEGE SHAPES THE U.S.
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
copyright Robert Jensen 1998
first appeared in the Baltimore Sun, July
[This essay builds on the discussion of
white privilege from Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege and Male Privilege:
A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's
by Robert Jensen
Here's what white privilege sounds like:
I am sitting in my University of Texas
office, talking to a very bright and very conservative white student about
affirmative action in college admissions, which he opposes and I support.
The student says he wants a level playing
field with no unearned advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that
in the United States being white has advantages. Have either of us, I ask, ever
benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people? Yes, he
concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call white privilege.
So, if we live in a world of white
privilege--unearned white privilege--how does that affect your notion of a level
playing field? I ask.
He paused for a moment and said, "That
really doesn't matter."
That statement, I suggested to him,
reveals the ultimate white privilege: the privilege to acknowledge you have
unearned privilege but ignore what it means.
That exchange led me to rethink the way I
talk about race and racism with students. It drove home to me the importance of
confronting the dirty secret that we white people carry around with us everyday:
In a world of white privilege, some of what we have is unearned. I think much of
both the fear and anger that comes up around discussions of affirmative action
has its roots in that secret. So these days, my goal is to talk openly and
honestly about white supremacy and white privilege.
White privilege, like any social
phenomenon, is complex. In a white supremacist culture, all white people have
privilege, whether or not they are overtly racist themselves. There are general
patterns, but such privilege plays out differently depending on context and
other aspects of one's identity (in my case, being male gives me other kinds of
privilege). Rather than try to tell others how white privilege has played out in
their lives, I talk about how it has affected me.
I am as white as white gets in this
country. I am of northern European heritage and I was raised in North Dakota,
one of the whitest states in the country. I grew up in a virtually all-white
world surrounded by racism, both personal and institutional. Because I didn't
live near a reservation, I didn't even have exposure to the state's only
numerically significant non-white population, American Indians.
I have struggled to resist that racist
training and the ongoing racism of my culture. I like to think I have changed,
even though I routinely trip over the lingering effects of that internalized
racism and the institutional racism around me. But no matter how much I "fix"
myself, one thing never changes--I walk through the world with white privilege.
What does that mean? Perhaps most
importantly, when I seek admission to a university, apply for a job, or hunt for
an apartment, I don't look threatening. Almost all of the people evaluating me
for those things look like me--they are white. They see in me a reflection of
themselves, and in a racist world that is an advantage. I smile. I am white. I
am one of them. I am not dangerous. Even when I voice critical opinions, I am
cut some slack. After all, I'm white.
My flaws also are more easily forgiven
because I am white. Some complain that affirmative action has meant the
university is saddled with mediocre minority professors. I have no doubt there
are minority faculty who are mediocre, though I don't know very many. As Henry
Louis Gates Jr. once pointed out, if affirmative action policies were in place
for the next hundred years, it's possible that at the end of that time the
university could have as many mediocre minority professors as it has mediocre
white professors. That isn't meant as an insult to anyone, but is a simple
observation that white privilege has meant that scores of second-rate white
professors have slid through the system because their flaws were overlooked out
of solidarity based on race, as well as on gender, class and ideology.
Some people resist the assertions that the
United States is still a bitterly racist society and that the racism has real
effects on real people. But white folks have long cut other white folks a break.
I know, because I am one of them.
I am not a genius--as I like to say, I'm
not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I have been teaching full-time for six
years, and I've published a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it is the
unexceptional stuff one churns out to get tenure, and some of it, I would argue,
actually is worth reading. I work hard, and I like to think that I'm a fairly
decent teacher. Every once in awhile, I leave my office at the end of the day
feeling like I really accomplished something. When I cash my paycheck, I don't
But, all that said, I know I did not get
where I am by merit alone. I benefited from, among other things, white
privilege. That doesn't mean that I don't deserve my job, or that if I weren't
white I would never have gotten the job. It means simply that all through my
life, I have soaked up benefits for being white. I grew up in fertile farm
country taken by force from non-white indigenous people. I was educated in a
well-funded, virtually all-white public school system in which I learned that
white people like me made this country great. There I also was taught a variety
of skills, including how to take standardized tests written by and for white
All my life I have been hired for jobs by
white people. I was accepted for graduate school by white people. And I was
hired for a teaching position at the predominantly white University of Texas,
which had a white president, in a college headed by a white dean and in a
department with a white chairman that at the time had one non-white tenured
There certainly is individual variation in
experience. Some white people have had it easier than me, probably because they
came from wealthy families that gave them even more privilege. Some white people
have had it tougher than me because they came from poorer families. White women
face discrimination I will never know. But, in the end, white people all have
drawn on white privilege somewhere in their lives.
Like anyone, I have overcome certain
hardships in my life. I have worked hard to get where I am, and I work hard to
stay there. But to feel good about myself and my work, I do not have to believe
that "merit," as defined by white people in a white country, alone got me here.
I can acknowledge that in addition to all that hard work, I got a significant
boost from white privilege, which continues to protect me every day of my life
from certain hardships.
At one time in my life, I would not have
been able to say that, because I needed to believe that my success in life was
due solely to my individual talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic
American, the rugged individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture's
mythology that I couldn't see the fear that was binding me to those myths. Like
all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't really
deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than
brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn't heroic or rugged, that I wasn't
I let go of some of that fear when I
realized that, indeed, I wasn't special, but that I was still me. What I do
well, I still can take pride in, even when I know that the rules under which I
work in are stacked in my benefit. I believe that until we let go of the fiction
that people have complete control over their fate--that we can will ourselves to
be anything we choose--then we will live with that fear. Yes, we should all
dream big and pursue our dreams and not let anyone or anything stop us. But we
all are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and what the society in
which we live lets us be.
White privilege is not something I get to
decide whether or not I want to keep. Every time I walk into a store at the same
time as a black man and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to
shop, I am benefiting from white privilege. There is not space here to list all
the ways in which white privilege plays out in our daily lives, but it is clear
that I will carry this privilege with me until the day white supremacy is erased
from this society.
Frankly, I don't think I will live to see
that day; I am realistic about the scope of the task. However, I continue to
have hope, to believe in the creative power of human beings to engage the world
honestly and act morally. A first step for white people, I think, is to not be
afraid to admit that we have benefited from white privilege. It doesn't mean we
are frauds who have no claim to our success. It means we face a choice about
what we do with our success.
Jensen is a professor in the School of
Journalism in the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at